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A decade after the Oak Creek shooting, Sikh community members and experts push for improved policy and resources

Wisconsin native Pardeep Kaleka was driving to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin when he learned there was an active shooter in the gurdwara — the very same place his parents and several other congregants were preparing a community meal.

His mother survived the Aug. 5, 2012 attack, but his father, Satwant Kaleka, did not. He was one of seven innocent worshippers killed by a shooter with ties to white nationalist neo-Nazi groups.

“This tragedy was heard, not just in the United States, but all over the world,” Kaleka said Friday in a vigil memorializing the event. “It resonated with every single Sikh.”

The shooting became the deadliest targeted attack on Sikh Americans in U.S. history. So, while hate crimes were not a new concept to Sikh Americans, the Oak Creek assault sent shockwaves through the community, said Sim J. Attariwala, a senior policy and advocacy manager of the Sikh Coalition.

“It was a somber day,” Attariwala said to CBS News. “I think every Sikh that I know, including myself, remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news of the Oak Creek shooting.”

In the 10 years since the attack, the threat of white nationalism and crimes against Sikhs and other American minority groups has increased, he said.

“Oak Creek can be seen as a warning of the increasingly violent and assertive role that white supremacy has set out to play in American society over the next decade,” Attariwala said. “Our community, the AAPI community, the Latino community, the Black community, the Jewish community, the Muslim community — they’re all, I think, at a heightened sense of vigilance.”

Authorities like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have found white supremacy groups to be one of the most dangerous threats in the U.S., said Michael Lieberman of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Federal agencies “are repeatedly identifying what they consider to be the most lethal domestic threats today, which are number one: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” Lieberman said to CBS News. “And two: anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists.”

One way to potentially lessen these threats moving forward is to improve the way hate crime data is tracked in this country, he said. Local law enforcement agencies only report hate crimes to the FBI voluntarily — they are not required to. This means it’s likely many hate crimes occurring in the U.S. are going unreported.

“Having that data and taking the reporting of the data seriously would help to be able to allocate resources,” Lieberman said. “If you know there have been three anti-Muslim hate crimes in a particular neighborhood, you can increase police patrols and reassure the community by having civic leaders go out and talk to them.”

In addition to improving hate crime tracking, some activists are pushing for more federal funding for security provisions in places of worship. Sikh Coalition’s Sahej Preet Singh said while the government currently offers a grant for these institutions to receive money, it is a competitive process to actually get it.

“This grant actually covers things like bulletproof glass, improving security alarms, and installing new cameras and all that. So, this money really helps,” Singh told CBS News. “But at the moment, there is a limited budget, so the competition gets really, really fierce.”

If the government is able to increase the budget allotted for this grant, more nonprofit organizations and places of worship would be able to secure funding, he said.

Tragedies and hate crimes like the one in Oak Creek can be difficult for the communities targeted, but Sikh Americans have turned their heartbreak into a motivator for change, Kaleka told CBS News.

“What happened that day didn’t deter us from understanding that we have a role to play in America. It just made us more determined,” he said. “In times of grief and suffering, sometimes it brings out the worst in us. But for us, I think it brought out the best in us.”

Lieberman said the world can look to the Sikh Americans’ response to the attack as an example of how to take action in the face of tragedy. So far, they have gotten the FBI to start tracking the number of hate crimes that affect Sikhs specifically, initiated a National Day of Seva, otherwise known as selfless service, on which they encourage people to engage in a form of community service and helped dozens of gurdwaras apply for the federal security grant.

“The resilience that the community has demonstrated and the way they have honored the memory of those who were murdered is through action,” he said. “The fact that so many members of this community recognize that there is a way forward to try to make things better, not just for the Sikh American community, but for everyone, that is really a best practice for communities. 

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